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A to Z: Botulism

May also be called: Foodborne Botulism; Infant Botulism; Wound Botulism

Botulism (BAH-chu-lih-zum) is a rare but serious illness caused by poisons produced by Clostridium botulinum bacteria.

More to Know

Clostridium botulinum is a naturally occurring bacterium that can be found in soil and dust. When C. botulinum infects a person, it produces toxins (poisons) that cause nerves to function abnormally, leading to weakness and paralysis.

There are three main types of botulism:

  1. Foodborne botulism occurs when someone eats food contaminated with the bacteria. This happens most commonly with home-canned foods that aren't prepared or stored properly.
  2. Wound botulism is when the bacteria infect a wound. This is most commonly associated with the use of injected illegal drugs like heroin.
  3. Infant botulism happens when a baby ingests C. botulinum spores, which can grow in the digestive system and produce toxins.

Symptoms of botulism include double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, and muscle weakness. In infants, symptoms include constipation, a flat facial expression, poor feeding, a weak cry, decreased movement, trouble swallowing, excessive drooling, muscle weakness, and breathing problems.

If not treated, botulism can cause respiratory failure, paralysis, and death. Botulism is usually treated in a hospital with an antitoxin that blocks the toxins produced by the bacteria. In some cases, ventilators may be used to help with breathing.

Keep in Mind

Botulism can be fatal, so anyone who shows signs of the disease should receive immediate medical attention. Fortunately, botulism is extremely rare, with about 145 cases reported in the United States each year. With proper treatment, most people recover fully from botulism, but this can take several weeks or months.

All A to Z dictionary entries are regularly reviewed by KidsHealth medical experts.

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